IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE GORGON (1964)

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Hammer Films’ THE GORGON (1964) reunited stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee with director Terence Fisher for the first time in five years, as they hadn’t made a movie together since THE MUMMY (1959).

Yup, in the late 1950s, these three had taken the world by storm with their megahits for Hammer:   THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), and THE MUMMY (1959).  But in the years afterwards, Cushing and Lee largely avoided horror films, although Cushing made a couple, and while Fisher continued to direct quality horror movies for Hammer like THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) neither of these films performed well at the box office.

So, when Hammer finally reunited its A Team, there were high expectations.  The result, THE GORGON, is a movie that comes oh so close to being another Hammer classic, and while it’s a very good horror movie, it falls just short of being a great one.

It’s funny, but the best and worst parts about THE GORGON are the same thing:  the gorgon!  The best part about THE GORGON is its subject matter, which for Hammer, a studio whose bread and butter had been its remakes of the old Universal horror movies, was a nice change.  Gone were Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, and in their place was a new monster, taken from mythology, the gorgon, who turns her victims to stone, and with this new monster the movie also told an original story.

But the worst part of THE GORGON is also the gorgon, and that’s because the special effects here are abysmal.  We don’t actually see the face of the gorgon until the end of the movie, but once we do, it’s laughable.  Supposedly, a woman with snakes on her head was too much for make-up artist Roy Ashton to pull off successfully, which is a real shame since the rest of the movie plays like a superior thriller, and then it comes to a crashing halt when you see the actual effect.  As Christopher Lee has been quoted as saying, “The only thing wrong with THE GORGON is the gorgon!”

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It’s also kinda hard to believe, since Hammer’s monster make-up had always been excellent— Lee as the Creature in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and Oliver Reed as the werewolf in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, for example.  You just don’t expect the monster to look so bad in a Hammer Film, especially in one where everything else about it is so very good.

THE GORGON takes place in the early 20th century in a small European village known as Vandorf, where a series of murders has occurred where the victims have all turned to stone.  Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe), whose son was one of the most recent victims, arrives in Vandorf to investigate his son’s death, which has been reported as a suicide, a claim Heitz refutes.  Heitz’ investigation uncovers reports that a gorgon, Megera, had settled in the village years ago and legend has it that it still prowls the countryside at night turning its victims to stone.

Heitz visits an old acquaintance, Dr. Namaroff (Peter Cushing), a brain specialist who practices medicine in Vandorf, seeking his support, but Namaroff dismisses Heitz’ claims as pure fantasy. When Heitz himself falls victim to the gorgon, his second son Paul (Richard Pasco) arrives to seek answers about both his father’s and brother’s deaths, and he too is met with resistance from the town’s authorities and from Dr. Namaroff.  He does befriend Namaroff’s beautiful young assistant Carla Hoffman (Barbara Shelley), and she promises to help him learn the truth.

Paul receives more help when his professor from college, Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee) arrives in Vandorf to lend his support.  Together, they attempt to solve the mystery of the gorgon.

THE GORGON is a beautifully shot atmospheric horror movie, another gem by director Terence Fisher.  Its strength is its creepy atmosphere, especially the scenes inside the haunted castle overlooking the village of Vandorf, and its scenes of suspense, both expertly handled by Terence Fisher.  One of the more suspenseful scenes has Paul and Meister breaking into Dr. Namaroff’s home looking for evidence, and having to hide when Namaroff arrives.

The only thing lacking in this one is scenes of frightening horror.  Terence Fisher’s best horror films all have scenes like this— the Creature’s first appearance in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the staking of Lucy in HORROR OF DRACULA— but his lesser films tend to lack this visceral punch.  THE GORGON, as atmospheric and haunting as it is, lacks jolt and could really have used an infusion of terror.

For me, the best part of THE GORGON has always been the reuniting of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Their presence definitely lifts this movie.  With Dr. Namaroff, Cushing pretty much plays a variation of Baron Frankenstein.  He actually makes Namaroff even colder than Frankenstein, as in general, Cushing always instilled some saving charm for the Baron to keep him from being an outright villain, except for that one time in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).  Here, Namaroff has no charm.  He’s actually quite the unlikable character.

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE GORGON (1964).

Christopher Lee is cast against type, as he plays the energetic and very charming Professor Meister.  Under a gray wig and beard, he looks like Albert Einstein’s cousin.  It’s a fun role for Lee, and it’s definitely fun seeing him play the hero, going against not only the gorgon but Cushing’s villainous Namaroff.

The only drawback is Cushing and Lee don’t have a lot of scenes together in this one.  Had they been in this one together more, it would have been an even better movie.

Barabara Shelley, always a class act, is very good as Namaroff’s assistant Carla, the woman who means well in spite of her sinister secret.  Yikes!  Michael Goodliffe is also solid as Professor Jules Heitz.  He provides a strong presence early on, so much so that his early death comes as a surprise.  You have the feeling that he’s going to be in this story for the long haul, but then the gorgon had other ideas.

The rest of the cast is rather wooden and unforgettable, although Patrick Troughton shows up as Police Inspector Kanoff.

And again, by far, the appearance of the gorgon at the end of the movie is the weakest part of THE GORGON.  The rest of the film is seeped in seriousness, and then you see the monster and it looks like an amateur student special effect.  Both Terence Fisher and Hammer stumbled in a similar way several years earlier with their Sherlock Holmes movie THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959). HOUND is a fabulous superior movie, one of Hammer’s best, and yet in the film’s climax the “hound from hell” is incredibly fake looking and a major disappointment.  However, it’s not as damaging as the effects in THE GORGON, because HOUND was a Sherlock Holmes movie, and the hound, phony looking or not, was not the focus of that movie, which was dominated by Peter Cushing’s masterful performance as Sherlock Holmes.  The gorgon in THE GORGON was a major character and as such, its lackluster appearance really takes this one down several notches.

But back to the plus side, my favorite Hammer composer James Bernard provided another exceptional music score for this one.

As a fan of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and all things Hammer, I really like THE GORGON.  However, it’s not on the same level as Hammer’s initial hits nor is it one of the best horror movies of the decade.  But it is an atmospheric original horror tale directed by a master of the genre, Terence Fisher, and it stars Cushing and Lee.  You could do a lot worse than THE GORGON.

Just don’t expect to turn to stone when at long last in the film’s conclusion you finally behold the creature’s face.  If you’re reduced to anything, it’ll be tears from the laughter at seeing so goofy a visage.

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